Friday, 03 October 2014 11:23

Spirit of Life Model’s Checkered Life Recalled In 'American Muse'

By Arthur Gonick | News

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Before there was a Marilyn Monroe. Long before there was an “America’s Next Top Model.”

There was Audrey Munson. And her story trumps them all. 

Audrey was the iconic face and form that served as inspiration for Daniel Chester French’s Spencer Trask Memorial statue in Congress Park: “The Spirit of Life,” as well as nearly every major female statue cast in the early 1900s. Her visage stretched from New York City to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to the image on the “Walking Liberty” U.S. half-dollar coin that was first minted in 1916.  

She was also a silent film star, appearing in the first known completely nude movie role as an artist’s model in Inspiration. Only one print of her in film, a movie called Purity, exists today.

But in any age, Audrey Munson’s life would not be regarded as “pure,” and her life and times will be portrayed in a performance of an original musical, American Muse, this weekend.  

Muse will be presented by the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation to benefit the restoration of the Spirit of Life and Spencer Trask Memorial. Performances will be held on Saturday, October 4 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 5 at 2:30 p.m. in the Dee Sarno Theater at Saratoga Arts, 320 Broadway in Saratoga Springs.

Munson’s life unfolded like a soap opera full of drama, scandal and mental illness. Born in Rochester in 1891, Audrey was pushed into modeling at age 15 by her mother. Audrey quickly became the most sought after model for sculptors and painters throughout the American Beaux-Arts building boom (from 1900-1920).

After doing four silent films in California, Munson returned to New York in 1919 and was living with her mother in a boarding house owned by Dr. Walter Wilkins. Wilkins fell in love with Munson and murdered his wife, Julia, so he could be available for marriage.  

Although Munson and her mother had left New York prior to the murder, the police still wished to question them, resulting in a nationwide search. 

They were finally questioned in Toronto, Canada, where they testified that they had moved out because Mrs. Wilkins had requested it. This satisfied the police, but the negative publicity generated by the case effectively ended Munson’s career as a model and actress. Wilkins was tried, found guilty and sentenced to the electric chair. He hanged himself in his prison cell before the sentence could be carried out.

By 1920, Munson, unable to find work anywhere, returned with her mother to the town of Mexico, New York and worked selling kitchen utensils door to door. On May 27, 1922, she swallowed a solution with mercury in an attempt to take her own life.

In 1931, a judge finally ordered the 39-year-old Munson into a facility for treatment. Audrey died in 1996 at 104 years old, having spent her last 65 years in an upstate New York psychiatric hospital.

Tickets for American Muse are $15 for adults; $10 for seniors; and $7 for students. They may be purchased at the door or by calling (518) 339-0636. 

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